Billy Dee Williams. The name alone conjures up a vision of roguish charm and matinee-idol good looks, more akin to Hollywood’s golden era than any time since.
On the line from his home in Los Angeles—and at the age of 81—Williams still sounds every bit the leading man. The Star Wars veteran’s voice is unmistakable, smooth, and self-assured, as he spins yarns and reminisces about a lifetime of amazing experiences.
In town later this week for Fan Expo (March 1-3, at the Convention Centre), Williams is clearly pleased to be returning to the area.
“I always like coming to Vancouver. I love Canada, it’s one of my favourite places.”
He’s also looking forward to meeting fans during Fan Expo’s public autograph and photo sessions, which he describes as “a lot of fun”.
When asked if he’s ever caught off guard by the outpouring of affection after 40-plus years of Star Wars fandom, Williams laughs.
“Not anymore! But I’m very happy about it—it’s really nice to be appreciated.”
With an acting career that began at age seven—co-starring on Broadway with Lotte Lenya in Kurt Weill’s The Firebrand of Florence—Williams has led a fascinating life which includes theatre, television, film, writing, and painting (an accomplished artist, one of his works hangs in the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery).
He also released a jazz album, Let’s Misbehave, in 1961. Included on that album is the first-ever vocal recording of Bobby Scott and Ric Marlow’s “A Taste of Honey”, which was later covered by a little band from Liverpool known as the Beatles.
“I was the first person to ever sing that song, on the Broadway stage with Joan Plowright,” Williams says. “Recording it was sort of a lark. I did some singing in clubs, for a moment, and then I stopped. I have too much respect for singers to really think that I'm a singer.”
As far as acting, though, his first big Hollywood break came with Brian’s Song, a fact-based 1971 TV-movie about the close friendship between Chicago Bears players Gale Sayers (Williams) and Brian Piccolo (James Caan), in the wake of Piccolo’s terminal cancer diagnosis.
“It was a turning point in my life when I got that job, and I have certain reverence for it. The whole experience was an act of love.”
When it’s noted that there are countless men of a certain age who still get misty over Brian’s Song, Williams chuckles.
“Oh, absolutely. I met a guy who found it cathartic. He’d lock himself in his library and watch it again and again.”
After Brian’s Song, he signed on with Berry Gordy and Motown Productions, which was on its way to becoming a major Hollywood player with Williams films like Lady Sings the Blues (1972) and Mahogany (1975).
“Berry and I were very close,” Williams says. “I was under contract to him for about seven years, after Lady Sings the Blues. I'm very grateful to Berry, he was instrumental in my career.”
One thing that’s evident in William’s work is an easy-going natural athleticism, as displayed in movies like Brian’s Song and the baseball film The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings (1976). When asked about it, however, he downplays his abilities.
“I played a little bit of baseball growing up, but I wasn’t that competitive. I wasn’t proficient, but I was efficient.”
Still, one can’t help notice that Williams displays a pretty good pitching form in Bingo Long, something not missed by Willie Mays when he saw the film. Reportedly, the Say Hey Kid even compared Williams to Cardinals great Bob Gibson.
Williams just chuckles, and points out that the character of Bingo Long was patterned after Satchel Paige.
“When I was growing up in New York City, I used to go see those guys play in Central Park, the Negro league players and the Cuban players,” he recalls. “They were fantastic, and I wound up working with a lot of those guys in Bingo Long. It really was an incredible experience—they were doing stuff with baseballs that would be done with CGI now.”
Conveniently, the mention of CGI offers a chance to shift focus to the elephant in the room, namely the upcoming J.J. Abrams-helmed Star Wars Episode IX, and, well, what can Williams say about reprising his role as Lando Calrissian?
“I just got through filming, and it was a wonderful surprise for me to be involved. I had a lot of fun. And working with J.J. Abrams—he's extraordinary, I mean of all the years I've been doing this it was a major highlight in my life working with him. He really creates a family-like atmosphere, he's very special.”
Still, he notes that it was sobering to do the film without Star Wars castmate Carrie Fisher, who died in 2016.
“Everybody missed Carrie,” he says, thoughtfully, “especially those of us who spent time with her. She was really wonderful, one of the brightest people I’ve ever met.”
When pressed for more details on Episode IX—perhaps a plot point or two—Williams just laughs.
“No, no, no. I’ll get struck by lightning!”
How about capes? Is Lando still wearing capes?
“Listen,” he barks, laughing, “I am not saying anything!”
Fair enough. But one thing Williams doesn’t mind talking about is his past experiences with Star Wars. When asked how much he and Lando have in common, he pauses, and you can practically feel that 100-watt smile coming through the telephone line.
“Well, I think I can be very charming, with a roguish streak, and certainly“—he laughs—“I was rather good-looking. But I patterned Lando after actors I saw when I was a boy, like Errol Flynn and all those swashbucklers. I always liked those bigger-than-life characters.”
With Lando back in the headlines after Donald Glover’s star turn as a younger version of the character in last year’s Solo, it begs the question: What was it like handing the role off to someone else?
“Donald Glover,” Williams says, “is an extraordinarily talented young man, judging by all the things he's been doing, like the Childish Gambino thing—I think it's a brilliant piece of music. And I thought he was very good in Solo, but to me, Lando is Billy Dee Williams, period.”
And who are we to argue? After all, Roger Ebert compared Williams to Clark Gable, and Ebony named him one of the “25 Coolest Brothers of All Time”.
When reminded of this, William just quietly says, “They were right.”
He pauses a beat, and then laughs uproariously.
“Listen,” he continues, “I don't really think about this stuff, I just try to have fun. I'm always looking to bring a point of view which is devoid of all the usual clichés which go on in our lives. If you're going to be a creative person you don't restrict yourself, you just have fun and do interesting things, not just as an actor, but in whatever you do.”
Billy Dee Williams appears at Fan Expo this Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, at the Vancouver Convention Centre.